WHENEVER President John Magufuli officiates public functions, one feature is a ‘No Miss’ at the venues – a special section for prominent individuals. This is not a discovery by the newest of the line-up of Tanzania’s five Union Heads of State so far.
It is a tradition that stretches back to the reign of Founding President Julius Nyerere. There are a few reasons why special attention is given to the elders, representatives of whom are usually invited to make a few remarks towards the climax. Significant, too, is that, the elders are reverentially known as ‘wazee’, the singular of which we freely apply as a honorific, in reference to, say, the late Mzee Kingunge Ngombale-Mwiru.
Within the ranks are included women who are referenced as Bibi so-and-so, such as uhuru crusader Titi Mohammed, in whose name a major Dar es Salaam road is named. The reverence, in my view, stems from three major reasons. One, compliance with African tradition, which dictates that young generation members proffer much respect to older persons, more-so the ones who are truly ‘wazee’.
So binding is this unwritten law, that, social or economic status isn’t factored into the bargain; from a cart pusher-puller to Head of State, a ‘mzee’ is (at the very minimum is entitled to being ) respected. During my boyhood, in the village where cultural values are relatively more deeply entrenched than in urban settings where pollutants are relatively more manifest, mischievous children poked fun at some mentally challenged younger elderly individuals.
For fear of reprisals, however, they didn’t extend the mischief to the wazee proper, and even in respect of the younger mental patients (in respect of whom the derogatory ‘vichaa’ label has delightfully been replaced by the respectful ‘wagonjwa wa akili’) they didn’t do so in the presence of adults. Two, ‘wazee’ are perceived to be repositories of experience and wisdom, drawn from having been around for several years.
The outpouring of grief that attended the death of Mzee Kingunge Ngombale-Mwiru, in Dar es Salaam last Friday and who was buried in the city on Monday, testified to those attributes. The combination of the independence agitation party TANU and CCM made the long-ruling Tanzanian party one of the oldest in Africa, and highly respected beyond the continent.
Politicians have come and gone, and a crop of younger (and very ambitious) one emerges and will ultimately exit the scene. Some in the old generation league shot to the fore and receded to the background, but Mzee Ngombale’s permanence on the political landscape was exceptional. Except, arguably, for Founder President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, it wasn’t equaled by any other. Some may have wondered, indeed, how come he didn’t ascend to such eminent positions as party secretary-general or vice-chairman.
Had he been the rabidly ambitious type, he would have maneuvered his way up, but he was apparent no power-monger. He was more at ease operating largely from behind-thescenes as a strategist, to which end he bore the informal title ‘party ideologue’. He took it in his stride, as he did, the evolvement of his first name, Kingunge, into a reference, in plural, ‘vingunge’, for political heavyweights.
Yet, all along, he was at home operating as a lightweight. Even as minister, he was low-keyed. Mzee Kingunge was principled to such a high level that, he categorically rebuked people, some within family circles, who sought his influence (which quite many other high-profile Establishment figures use as a potent tool) to facilitate favours related to things like job opportunities and lucrative business deal connections.
Expertise at reconciliation in disputes, is the third attribute that many elderly persons possess, demonstrated by discussions or negotiations under the auspices of elders’ councils. This ranges from set-ups at the grassroots, on matters like matrimonial wrangles, to disputes at regional levels, an example being the Burundi dialogue, in which our very own ex- President Mzee Benjamin Mkapa is the facilitator, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni the mediator.
In-between, a good example is the role that elders played in settling 11 long-running land disputes in Keikei, Kingali and Kinyasi wards in Dodoma Region’s Kondoa District. Several initiatives to that end by stakeholders had failed, but enlisting the participation of elders acted as a metaphorical magic wand. So, yes; wazee constitute a potentially very rich resource onto which the rest of society should tap, for collective benefit.
But aspects with a bearing on brightening up the sunset of their lives (to which younger people must take note, that, they are unstoppably heading) should be addressed seriously.